Monday, March 08, 2010

Power Politics: how to slaughter the fluffy bunnys and stay popular

When Alistair Darling, George Osbourne and Vince Cable each sit down to work out what to tell the voters about the public service cuts to come they're faced with a tricky problem.

Everyone knows that the finances are in a mess and that there are going to have to be cuts. But spell out specifics and people realise that it's their hospital, road or care home that's getting hit and before you can say 'NIMBY' facebook campaigns have hatched on every cyber-street corner. Look what's happened with 6 Music and the Asian Network.

Say too little and your party is accused of being shifty, vague and patronising ordinary Joe-public.

The three main parties are like jostling athletes in the 10000 metres - none of them want to be the ones hitting the front first and taking the flack from bringing the bad news specific to people. The pace in the race slows to a jog and soon no-one's prepared to say that they'll cut a strawberry shoe lace from front line services.

However, there's a third underlying factor in the equation.

How you gain power dictates what you can do when you're in power.

This is most easily traced where money's involved. When the old Labour party relied on being bank rolled by trade unions to win an election the Unions expected a lot back when they were in power even when politicians knew it wasn't best for the country. Republicans elected on the back of the Jewish or Oil lobby will constrained in their choices by who their power base are, even if they want to vote differently on a decision.

This axiom is less obviously at work, but equally important in the vision and policy announcements that a party makes during an election campaign. The more you say up front the easier it is to govern. If you promise in the campaign to slaughter all the fluffy bunny rabbits and little woolly lambs in the UK and you still manage to get elected your policy might still be unpopular, but no-one can say they didn't know. You gain a mandate to govern and it's much harder for those that disagree with you to go against you when 'the people have spoken'. It's recognised in parliament that laws enacting specific manifesto commitments get an easier ride than other bills.

The importance of this rule cannot be underestimated. It should give impetus to politicians to go out and make a clear case to the country for what they believe in an election campaign, especially the difficult and unpopular bits. It also explains why 'good' people go into politics thinking that they'll change things for the better when they're in power, but get caught in the system: in keeping their head down they didn't gather upfront support for their changes along the way and became beholden to party, business or pressure group interests.

During the conference season last Autumn Osborne and the Conservatives were the only ones to even begin to spell out the cuts that will be needed to public finances. He was reported as saying that the country could be virtually ungovernable if he didn't make the case upfront - it would be worth losing some support and getting in with a smaller majority if it gave him more leeway in power. As I suggested in my last post the party that gets this risk right have much to gain, however, now the lead has closed, the nerves have kicked in and the Conservatives are back peddling.

All three wannabe chancellors are on the horns of an electoral dilemma that will not just determine the outcome of the next election, but how we are governed for the next five years.

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